Northern Exposure

Christmas in Alaska 1999

Thumbnail photos accompany the story. Feel free to click on the image of your choice for a higher resolution rendition.


December 21, 1999

The phone rings with an abrupt volume sufficient to rouse the floor of our hotel. I know the news without needing to answer the antiquated red box on the nightstand, but out of deference to the morning I pick up the receiver to get an automated message that it is 5:00 AM and time to rise, as per my request. We have spent the night in Los Angeles in anticipation of a 7:30 AM flight which will deliver us to Alaska for the Christmas holidays. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…keeps singing in my head, despite the Accu-weather forecast for five days of rain and temperatures in the high 30s at our destination of Haines, Alaska. We have paid our sack of nickels, and now must take our chances. Either way, the prospect of Christmas north is exciting, albeit two days ago I was wondering how I ever came up with such an idea in the first place.

We decided to spend the night near the airport at the Hotel Furama on their offer to allow us to leave our car parked in their lot and shuttle us to and from LAX in exchange for our booking. Not have to get up at 2:00 AM and chance breakdown or traffic at some silly hour on the 405 freeway? Not have to hassle long term parking and hauling sufficient baggage to launch an assault on the Khumbu icefalls? I am for it. And glad of it as our shuttle craft bogs in traffic for the Departing Flights terminals. Grid lock at LAX at 6:00 AM. Good god who would have thought? Cars are jammed as they jockey for position. We can see lines of people that stretch forever outside and inside the terminals, as travelers check their bags curbside or check in for the flights. No problem. Our flight does not leave for an hour and a half. At the Alaska Airline terminal we are glad to see the long lines and panic absent. Not too many folks are heading up to Santa’s neighborhood today. I am feeling totally unstressed after a good night sleep and no need to navigate the traffic. Sufficiently so that I am able to unknot some knickers bunched up behind me by allowing some late arrivals to take our place in line and check in in order to catch their flight. It’s the holidays. I am feeling generous and want everyone to be as stress free as me. (Who knows who is carrying an Uzi before the security check?)

The flight is completely booked, despite the lack of lines earlier. The attendant at the gate graciously allows us to carry our Starbucks’ on board. We settle in for a long day with an uncertain future. Skies are blue in California, but we have been warned that bad weather in Alaska my prevent us from being able to catch a shuttle flight from Juneau to Haines and we may need to spend the night in Juneau and catch a ferry with the Alaska Marine Highway System the next day. We shall see what we shall see. What we can see on the flight north is worth the price of admission alone. Everything to make a geologist’s heart glad. The San Andreas fault is plain to see in the morning light, dividing California into distinct tectonic plates and differentiating the region’s physiographic features into desert and mountain provinces. The state to the west of the fault is slowly making its way north to join Alaska, but not fast enough for us today. A brief while later I see an interesting looking outcrop of rock in the Sierra Nevada ahead of us, to find we are now flying directly over Yosemite National Park. I can look down into Yosemite Valley and see El Capitan and Half Dome directly below. Mono lake rests off to the east. Landmarks made familiar by repeated forays north and south along Hwy 395 come into view. The Cascades punctuate Oregon and Washington with snow covered stratovolcanoes. Basaltic lava flows covered in snow look as if they extruded recently. (Geologically, they did!) We fly directly over Mount St. Helens and can peer down into the crater gouged out of the side of the mountain, or what is left of it. Many lofty sentinels in the region appear to have had the same fate at some prior stage of their reign.

A brief layover and change of planes puts us back on our course north. Mountains become denser and whiter. Glacial valleys and fjords become common. The sky is still clear, but I can see signs ahead in the distance that this condition may not last. It is not long before the clouds dominate the landscape, and my fear is that forecasts may hold true. As we approach Juneau we descend into thick cumulus clouds, the bright white rolling froth seen from above turns into a gray misgiving which looms around us. We continue to bank and descend through this twilight zone of uncertainty (so it appears to me, and with cautious faith I feel comforted to know that (hope that) it does not appear this way to the driver.) We finally break through the ceiling and with great relief I can see that the ground and sea still rest far below us. Our landing is smooth and our excitement is great to be once again back in Alaska, even more so to have accomplished this feat in a matter of hours rather than the weeks it normally takes.

While Carolyn grabs the bags I find the shuttle service and inquire as to whether they are flying today. I am assured the weather is as good as it could be this week, and yes, they will be happy to shuttle us up. I find myself wondering silently if I will be as happy as they. My reservations become more so as a Chilkat woman continues to carry box after box of Costco cargo to the check-in for transport to Haines. "Hope you folks are flying the big plane today" I joke nervously as I watch the weight accumulate. They are not, but nor will they transport the cargo today. Four souls (including pilot) head for the Piper Cherokee 6, a single engine six seat puddle jumper on the runway. Our pilot informs us that while there are 50 ways to leave your lover, there are only two ways out of the aircraft, and shows us the double latch on each door. "I haven’t been to Haines today, but I hear it is pretty turbulent. I will try to make your flight as smooth as I can," he assures us. The flight takes 20 minutes, and while the ceiling is low, I keep an eye on the altimeter and see that he never has to fly below 1200 feet. Aside from a couple of skitters, it is smooth sailing.

"What brings you to Haines for Christmas?" our van driver asks as she shuttles us into town. She adds, "most of us would gladly be heading for your part of the country for a little reliable sunshine!" I explain that we have visited several times before, and we are interested in buying property in town, but had been given the sage advice that we should come see Haines in the winter before making a commitment, so here we are! That and we are hoping for a white Christmas. "May have to settle for a wet Christmas," she chuckles. "We had our white Christmas last year, all twelve feet of it!" Indeed it is a balmy 38 degrees and has been raining recently rather than snowing, though evidence of recent snows is plentiful.

We pick up our rental car in town, and head up to Fort Seward, where we have rented a condominium overlooking the Lynn Canal. (Fort Seward is a restored turn of the century Army base built over concerns of border disputes with Canada, and the Lynn Canal is the longest fjord in North America. A great combo!) Our friend Tresham Gregg, a local artist who lives in the condo next door, has spruced up our accommodations with Christmas trim, lights and a small tree. Nutcrackers line the mantel above the parlor fire place. We feel welcome and glad to have such a friend far from our home.

home away from home  home is where the hearth is  the weather outside is frightful

We want to see what Haines looks like in the winter. Long nights characterize the northern frontier of Alaska, and we have arrived for the Winter Solstice, marking the shortest day of the year. Haines is located on the 59 degree parallel, well south of most of the 50th state, and as such it enjoys a rather lengthy 6 hour day on the Solstice. Still, it feels strange to be strolling Main Street at 4:30 PM in the dark, while the shops are all still open and people are busy going about their business. The Solstice is a cause for celebration amongst the populace, as this marks the turning point when days start becoming longer again. Even if it is only by 1 minute per day, it is progress in the right direction. To celebrate, the town is having a community potluck and dance at the American Legion Hall, and we are invited to attend. The food is good and plentiful, the music loud and varied, and everyone enjoys a good stomp through the evening. We are greeted by many residents who are curious at the new faces in town during the off season. "How did you come to visit Haines at this time of year?" we are repeatedly asked.

December 22, 1999

It is 6:00 AM, and though curtains are closed, the morning looks brighter than I would expect for a day scheduled to have six hours and one minute of sunlight. I arise to draw back the curtain for a look see. The clouds have momentarily relented allowing a few stars to shine down and the moon to illuminate the countryside in what is reported to be its greatest brilliance in a century.

By 8:00 AM the clouds have reasserted their dominance and the ceiling has dropped to a few thousand feet. Light barely arrives in sufficient quantity to illuminate the morning. By 8:30 one might say the day portion of the day has begun. The country is clad in steel toned grayscales. Black mountains clad in white snow meld with gray clouds conjuring feelings of ancient landscapes lost in the distant past, only to be stirred by archetypal memories.

It is a good morning to sit about and drink coffee and hammer travelogues out on a computer, and I have no problem rambling for pages about a five hour flight. I am on vacation, and I am in no hurry to go anywhere or do anything. The day is in no hurry to make its appearance either. Synchronicity on the frontier.

Despite the long range forecast that had been suggested on the internet (and backed by local opinion, though locals do not see the weather as a phenomena written in stone) the day shapes up to be better than promised. A few errands around town are completed, and we decide to run up the highway to the Bald Eagle Preserve to see the gathering of the eagles along the banks of the Chilkat River. The Haines area hosts the council grounds for the largest winter season gathering of Bald Eagles in the Americas, if not the world. This is due to the fact that the Chilkat River is fed in part by water infiltrating through fans composed of alluvium derived from glacial sediments. The water infiltrating through the fan is insulated from the cold Alaska temperatures, and when it finds its way into the river, its temperature is about 10° warmer than that of the river. This prevents portions of the river from freezing, which allows a late season chum salmon run. This turns into a lunch line for the eagles, who are happy to feast, and hence the gathering. Photographers gather in November for the Eagle Festival in quantities which rival the numbers of eagle. We are happy to be able to tromp through the snow laden woods at river’s edge with only the gathering but without the horde. Though my digital camera is without tripod, and will only zoom to 14x, I am able to get a few decent shots, and have lots of fun clicking away regardless of the outcome. By 2:30 we can see the day is waning quickly, and pack up and head for home to enjoy some quiet reading time around our parlor fire.

Listening to the local radio over our supper, we are disheartened, though not surprised to hear the forecast of a 90% chance of rain the next day. We feel our fortune has been great today, as already we have received better weather than what predictions called for. Our good fortune is not spent yet however. After dinner Christmas carolers arrive on our front porch to regale us with holiday cheer, and to the east behind their ranks we can see the most luminescent moon sitting low and clear in the sky, its light reflecting off the Lynn Canal below. A perfect night for a long stroll. We estimate the temperature to be in the low 40’s, the wind is minimal, and the light is optimal. This chance may not present itself again, in addition to the fact that this is the night of the Lunar phenomenon that has been widely distributed over the internet. (How many copies does everyone estimate they received?) Off we truck, down the hill to the canal, appreciating the festive mood of each decorated house we pass. A stroll along the beach is in order, as the tide is far out and so is the evening. We stroll amidst armies of retired pier pilings. Rounded cobbles constitute the majority of the beach, which is handy, since despite the fact that the tide is out, the warm temperatures is causing the community to melt down, and the meltwater is making its way back to the sea in an overland flow across the beach. December in Alaska. I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas….

eagle in tree   eagle on the bank   eagle ho!   eagle on the chilkat

banks of the chilkat   views of the pass   twighlight at 2 PM   good weather in Alaska   the bright moon

December 23, 1999

So far so good. The morning actually looks better than the previous morning. The ceiling is well above the peaks across the canal, and between 8-9AM a bright pink sunrise skirts it way across the southern horizon. The wind has died away, and there is no immediate sign that rain is at hand. We decide to make our way out into the world sooner than later, and enjoy what we can before the inevitable promised forecast finds us.

An easy car trip down Mud Bay Road seems in order. "Let’s go out and look at the glaciers from Glacier Point State Park!" "We can keep our eyes open for FOR SALE signs and continue our fantasy of northern lifestyles!" We see no such signs, though plenty of houses we would be happy to fantasize about if given the opportunity. To our disappointment also, the road out to Glacier Point is not maintained during the winter, and the recent warm temperatures and rain have been insufficient to expose the dirt track. This allows us the option to run down a road we have not explored before, and we soon find ourselves out on the end of the point looking across the Lynn Canal to the line of craggy nunataks that rose above the last glacial advance. A line of small one room cabins overlooking a small inlet off the canal catches our interest. We have heard of a bed and breakfast out in this direction, and stop to see if this might be the location, though it appears that no one is at home. This assumption turns out to be incorrect, as a woman appears following a Labrador from one of the cabins down the line to greet us. Jan assures us that our first assumption was correct, if not our latter assumption. Yes, this is a Bed and Breakfast, though not yet open for business, as they are still constructing the insides of the cabins. I assure her we do not need accommodations this trip, but we would love to come and stay in the future.

"What is your business called?" I inquire. This seems to be a matter of some concern and uncertainty.

"I wanted to call it Cabin Fever, but turns out some company in California has that name registered in Alaska! I have to see what I can do about it. Where are you folks from?"

"Death Valley," I sheepishly add "California."

"What brings you to Haines this time of year?"

We enjoy a pleasant conversation with Jan, who graciously does not hold our home origins against us. Jan has lived in the area all her life, and despite an attempted escape during her college career, she found herself realizing how rich her life was on the canal, and was quick to return.

After exploring the point and its rocky beaches thoroughly, we head back to town for a little running around the shops. Our first stop is to the Wild Iris, to see our friends Fred and Madelyn who operate a small and special art shop in the front of their house at Fort Seward. Fred does not keep us in front of the counter very long before he invites us back into the house to show off his new Dell computer and all the programs that he has gotten loaded on it in the past week. He appreciates a crash course in Adobe Photoshop and the time passes quickly. We are graciously invited to play Bridge with friends this evening and spend Christmas with them, though we must decline the offers as we have social commitments on both occasions already. An hour later customers in the front require his attention, and we take the opportunity to continue our shopping foray. It is now quite dark outside (4:30) and the rain has begun.

We manage to make one more stop, the Form and Function Art Gallery, where Jim hosts a fantastic collection of art by local southeastern Alaskan artists. I had made notes of several pieces I was interested in during our summer visit, and am glad to see they are still available. I am also gratified that Jim remembers our previous visit. Art will be acquired this trip…Christmas is at hand!

Our day is wrapped up with a lovely lasagna dinner with Tresham and family, where we have an opportunity to compare and contrast life in rural settings, local environmental concerns, and political agendas to be found in both California and Alaska. There is little new under the sun, and 59 degrees of latitude only modify the amount of light that shines upon a problem.

Carolyn on the Lynn Canal   I want a piece of this myself!   SpiritOfTheOrca   OrcasOfQueenCharlotteSound

December 24, 1999

Despite the call for 100% chance of rain, not a cloud is to be seen in the sky. I wonder how long this is going to last.

We decide to go for a hike up to Chilkoot Lake. I have inquired locally about the possibility of running into bear on our hike, since several bear were drawing tourists last summer. I am told that the chance of running into bear is not unreasonable, as the lack of snow this year has most likely kept them from being able to hibernate at the higher altitudes. I am also told that it is the moose who I should look out for. They tend to be a little more aggressive when encountered by two-legged creatures, and have a tendency to dance. Not with you so much as on you. Apparently moose do far more physical damage to humans each year than bear do.

This area is normally accessible on a dirt road in the summer, and we are able to drive up a fair distance before running into rather solid ice, though snow is not in abundance. Our walk is shorter than expected, and we are soon looking out over Chilkoot Lake, which to our surprise is completely without ice. Once again we find ourselves thankful to be here during an off season, when there is no one in the campgrounds, no kayak outfitters shuttling customers to their racks of boats, or droves of tourists looking for the bears. We do keep our eyes open for the bears and the moose as we walk through the deserted snow covered campground nestled amidst the pine. None are to be seen. Yea, though I walk through the valley of wildlife, I shall fear no moose. Nor squirrel. The most exotic critters we do encounter are geese, and I must admit I do love a good goose.

The day passes pleasantly, with nary a cloud. I find myself wondering what happened to that 100% chance of rain.

No ice on Chilkat Lake!   Chilkat Lake   View from the lake across the Lynn Canal   nunatak...look it up!

cornice   high times in Alaska   peak from afar on Chilkat Lake   peak up close   one good goose deserves another!

December 25, 1999

Merry Christmas! The clouds must have rolled in while I wasn’t looking. (Actually I did look last night and saw they had rolled in, though they weren’t doing anything.) They did do something, and it is with a glad heart that I throw open the sash this morning to look out on a word draped in snow. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa-God, and he has delivered us our white Christmas. Joy to the world!

Not much to do today…build a snowman, build a margarita pie for the Christmas feast, and enjoy the feast-fest.

The snowman plans do not pan out, as it starts to rain and continues forth throughout the day turning the snow to a sea of slush. No matter, the day is still picturesque, and perfect for sitting inside next to a cozy fire and read a book. The weather does not impair the fest and good times are spent in good company with good fare.

December 26, 1999

Stiff winds, gray skies, low ceiling of rolling clouds marching northward over the canal. No rain at any rate, so the day may be well suited for roaming the countryside. Such is about all one can hope for on the Sunday after Christmas. Most stores in Haines are putting off their after-holiday sales until Monday.

Boxing day celebrations are in order however, and their is sufficient food left over from the holiday feast to indulge ourselves in similar fashion with our friends the Greggs.

December 27, 1999

The weather has shown no signs of improving, so we reluctantly revise our plans to board the ferry to Juneau tonight, rather than risk the possibility of a cancelled shuttle flight the next morning. We are glad to have this option, and the maneuver to the terminal and boarding the Blue Canoe feels very familiar.

We have thoroughly enjoyed out stay in Haines over the holidays. While the weather most likely did not give us the hoped for taste of Alaskan winters, it was interesting to experience the short days, noting the height of the sun to be the width of three fingers at the end of an outstretched arm at high noon. Of importance to us was the warmth and hospitality we were shown, the growing number and depth of our circle of friends, and the joy of seeing the country during the quiet season. We have agreed to make plans to rent a house or apartment for the summer and let the joy continue, and the good times roll. I see some kayaks in our future!